From my forthcoming book
Fifty Eight Delegates
Civil and religious liberty are natural and fundamental rights that must be promoted and defended by all who claim the title of Loyalist (From William Mitchell’s Principles of Loyalism document, 2002).
It was one moment I shall never forget, one of those occasions when the heart pounds and every second becomes an eternity. A feeling so terrifying I can still summon it today as I reminisce.
I had been involved in the counting of hands in the only resolution so tightly debated that a careful count was necessary. Julie-Anne Corr had proposed that our party should support the campaign for gay people to have full marriage rights, and the vote would be far from unanimous. For months five of us had met in the PUP’s East Belfast office and rehearsed the debates, battered the arguments, doled out bucketfuls of mock abuse toward Julie-Anne as she stood at our makeshift lectern, drafted and redrafted her presentation, leaked, and then championed the proposal to less sympathetic Loyalists through social media, and now, at the chairman’s table at party conference 2013 the chairman was totting up the delegates’ votes.
The resolution passed, by fifty eight delegates to thirty six. Being stood upright at the back of the room I had a full view of the hustle and bustle, as the reality of what had just happened spread through the hall with a ripple of murmur and activity. Johnny Harvey who was sat half-way down the seated area to my left simply turned in his seat to face me, and as I noticed his gaze he picked up on my delight, smiled, and fired a satisfied wink. Julie-Ann, Kerry Johnston, Ian Shanks and Ysabell Giles each made a clambering bee-line for the door as I was clutching for my phone determined to let the world know of this development via twitter. I then joined them outside. Our equal marriage committee re-united in victory.
I think I was the only one whose joy didn’t present in tears. Instead, I broke from the group embrace with what must have been an absurd smile, akin to the ones used nowadays to punctuate text messages. Dr. Stephen Baker, a professor of media who would address later PUP conferences, arrived to join the conference and began conveying his apologies for being late only to stop mid sentence curious at the drama spilling out before him. I composed myself enough to explain the cause of our elation. I managed to explain to him that we were the first small group of people to convince a Unionist party in Northern Ireland to embrace equal marriage rights for gay people.
The small group of people to which I refer are all still friends today, we are still active campaigners, and we are all Political Loyalists.